“The Black Cauldron” (1985) Film Review
Written by Jambareeqi
Posted 6th August 2017
“The Black Cauldron” is a fantasy adventure that centres on an assistant pigkeeper called Taran, who must take care of a psychic pig, and protect her from the hands of the evil Horned King. You see, the Horned King is after the powerful Black Cauldron, and Taran’s pig can help him locate it. Taran joins forces with the graceful Princess Eilonwy, the cowardly bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a little naughty creature Gurgi, to locate the cauldron and destroy it before the Horned King finds it.
This Disney feature was a box office bomb on release, and it’s actually one of Disney’s biggest theatrical flops. However, fans of the movie have considered it to be an underrated treasure that didn’t deserve to be a turkey. Now, I did grow up with “The Black Cauldron”, I watched it on VHS very frequently, and it was a my favourite of mine back in the day; but rewatching the film, I can honestly see why it was panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
There’s nothing really remarkable about “The Black Cauldron” when compared to other contemporary fairytale adventures, it’s rather ordinary and doesn’t have much of it’s own identity. It employs all the typical ingredients of a fantasy quest movie, but doesn’t really do anything special with these tropes. It’s a rather flavourless and blunt movie to be honest.
I also found the overall tone to be drearily mean spirited too, seeing as most of the characters are pretty insufferable to put up with. Sure, Princess Eilonwy is a sweetheart who makes good points (plus she’s voiced by the wonderful late Susan Sheridan), but the rest are a pain the arse.
Taran won’t shutup bragging about his worth but gets insecurely defensive when criticised, the bard also constantly hypes himself up yet remains annoyingly cowardly, Gurgi is a self entitled hyperactive bugger who acts like a passive aggressive brat, and additional supporting characters who pop in can be aggravatingly cranky or mardy. Watching these awful flat characters moan, bicker, and argue is grating to put up with.
Yes, some of these characters do try to redeem themselves by the end, but the movie doesn’t give the audience any compelling reasons to make us care if they change. You can’t have your characters act like one dimensional assholes for 90% of the runtime, and then expect us to be chuffed when they suddenly do a good deed or say something nice at the last minute. We need to find likeable qualities in them, so we can develop the desire to see them improve for the best, or we don’t believe in or care about their arcs.
Couple these obnoxiously crude characters with the dank backgrounds and bleak colour scheme, then you get a surprisingly gloomy film for a children’s fairytale. I know people praise the film for being grim, but a dark tone doesn’t ALWAYS mean a good movie, it’s not automatic validation for applause. Sometimes, a dark film can lead to a less fun and accessible family movie; “The Black Cauldron” is evidence of this formula not being fool-proof.
Now, I’m not against a dark Disney movie, I LOVED “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, but that film has great characters and a dry sense of humour; which makes the harsh mature tone somewhat easier to swallow. “The Black Cauldron” suffers from unlikable characters who spend the movie being at eachother’s throats, so it’s hard to stomach the more cruel scenes or bleak imagery; because there’s very little to compensate for the joyless moments.
Apparently, the original cut of the film had some MUCH darker scenes, but they were cut out by Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. While I can see where Katzenberg was coming from, he came into production quite late, meaning that his last minute edits made some scenes look clumsily put together; when in reality, they were just missing crucial sequences. Katzenberg unwisely put marketing of the film before narrative coherency, another example of his poor decision making skills when he worked at Disney.
However, one positive outcome of the morbidly dark overtone, is the fact that the film can pull off a rather intimidating villain. While the Horned King has no remarkable motive as an antagonist, he makes up for this with sheer screen presence! This is a bad guy who strikes cold silence into any room he enters, can command his minion to strangle himself, and has a ghastly design that lacks humanity. His ghoulish appearance is also bolstered by John Hurt’s macabre voiceover, whose raspy tones add a spinechilling resonance to the Horned King’s dialogue.
To conclude, “The Black Cauldron” suffers from a cruel spirited tone, unlikable characters, and a huge lack of unique identity. Sure, Princess Eilonwy is sweet company and the Horned King makes for an awesome villain; but this is an all together boringly bleak children’s fairytale as a whole. I can honestly see why it was a bomb, and I’m afraid that it’s loyal fans can’t convince me that it’s underrated. Not even my Nostalgic attachment to the film could save it from being morbidly dull to sit through.
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